Growing up between Texas and Dubai, Ruairidh Macdonald had never come across an inclusive rugby club before coming home to Aberdeen for university.
With the oil and gas industry sending his family around the world, Macdonald found himself far from the north east of Scotland, but he still managed to play rugby on the other side of the globe – albeit somewhat reluctantly.
It was more something to do for Macdonald than a burning passion, a useful way of keeping fit, but with that came discomfort in the scene he had become a part of.
“Growing up I wasn’t really into sport, I would do things here and there at school but I would never say rugby jumped out at me,” he recalled.
“I was always kind of terrified of doing a team sport, and to be fair my hand-eye co-ordination is still shocking – I play rugby, but that doesn’t mean I’m good at it.
“When I started playing I would have been 14, and living in Texas. Weirdly enough it is actually quite big out there, because the rugby season starts when the American football season has ended, so a lot of the American football kids would then go on to do rugby, because they could just switch back.
“It was fine, but I guess I never really fit in, because they were all football guys, they all knew each other from school. I was… the nice word is alternative, but the reality was I was a massive loser at school. I played for my school team, but we weren’t that good. We were kind of there as fodder to pad out the championships.
“The guys in Dubai were around my age, but they had goals of getting far in the game – even now some of them play for the England or Wales under-21 teams, and I was there to chuck a ball around.
“When I moved back to Aberdeen to go to uni, I saw the uni team at the fresher’s fayre, but they were the exact same kind of people that I had met playing in Dubai – they had played rugby since they were nine years old, they might not be the best but they were still better than you, and I didn’t really like that.
“I was looking for something a bit more – not slow, but something in the middle.”
While rugby was somewhat of an uncomfortable hobby, realising that he was gay in two very conservative parts of the world could have been a major challenge in it’s own right.
Macdonald was certainly aware of the situation he was in when it came to accepting his sexuality, but although he came across some outdated views for the most part he was able to build a support system around himself.
“I guess I kind of started to get it when I lived in Texas, between 10 and 15, and then when I moved back to Dubai I was definitely like ‘uh oh, I’d better not say anything’,” the 19-year-old explained.
“It definitely was difficult. My friends all knew, but they were a mixture of Scottish and English, so they were all fine with it. I encountered a few people my age with quite outdated views.
“I distinctly remember going somewhere with a friend’s friend – using friend very loosely – and he went into this story about how his gym trainer was telling him not to train with guys who might be gay, because their sweat contains the gay chemical, and if it touches you that will make you gay.
“I remember there being a silence, and then I said ‘you can’t catch gay’. It’s just stuff like that. I felt bad, because I used to play into it, and go along with it. You don’t want to make an issue, because if you do suddenly it’s like ‘why do you care?’
“For the most part, I’d say people were quite understanding. I knew people who were quite modernised, because everyone is nowadays. Even if you grow up outside of western society, if you watch a lot of telly, a lot of it is from the US. People learn English from American TV shows.
“I had some Arab friends, and they said they were okay with me being gay – I was like ‘oh, thank you so much, it means so much to me that I’m allowed to be gay’.”
Rugby was not particularly high on Macdonald’s agenda when he returned to Aberdeen, and while Scotland may be a step up in terms of acceptance over his previous homes the Granite City is hardly the most progressive you will find.
He did come across Aberdeen Taexali, but he put off going along to a “scrum and have a go” event for a long time. His main concern was that it would be more of the same experiences he had found in Texas and Dubai, but after eventually taking the plunge and going along last November he was pleasantly surprised.
“I was interested in it, and I thought about coming to try it out, but I hadn’t been playing for a while and every single time the chance came up to go and try it out, I either had an excuse to not go, didn’t have an excuse and still didn’t go, or it might have been a day I just wasn’t feeling it,” Macdonald said.
“It was first year of uni, I might have been hungover, who knows? Why would they pick a Sunday, surely they know that’s ground zero? I finally went along and did the scrum and have a go on their second birthday, and I was really nervous the night before.
“I was really worried that they were all going to be really good, and I would be really bad, and there would be no real way to get into it. I get quite anxious about things, so I was really stressed out. I told myself I was going to do it, because it was lockdown – I was sitting in the house doing nothing, and I knew I needed to get out and do some exercise otherwise I was going to lose my mind.
“I nearly psyched myself out, but I went along and everything went really well. Everything that I had feared it was going to be was proven wrong.
“To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting. I think I expected to show up, nobody to talk to me, and then to just not do it again.
“Everyone was really friendly and welcoming, they understand that not everyone is the best at rugby, especially me. Everyone was interested in getting to know you, they actually made an effort in a way that pushed me out of my shell a wee bit, and I was quite surprised at that.
“For me, the worst case scenario was that it was an hour and a half of exercise that I could take to the bank and find something else to do, but I was quite surprised at what I found. It was a lot more welcoming than that.”
For many, inclusive clubs provide a sense of community in sport where it did not previously feel possible – and that has become all the more important over the last year when isolation has hit so many people in lockdown during the pandemic.
Clubs have had to try and come up with novel ways to keep members engaged, and for Aberdeen Taexali that came in the form of a fundraising challenge to walk, run or cycle the 502 miles from Aberdeen to Twickenham Stadium for last weekend’s Calcutta Cup.
Four teams were formed out of the 24 players who signed up, and in total the club covered the distance more than seven times over, raising £1415 for the Scottish Association for Mental Health in the process.
Macdonald was one of those players to take part, and he found the challenge to be useful from a mental health point of view as well as for physical fitness.
“When you say an inclusive rugby team, it’s marketing to people that have had experience in rugby in the past and have been made to feel like they aren’t included, or made to feel different,” he reasoned.
“People feel ostracised by the traditional rugby method. I dreaded to think in general, but especially in Dubai, if people found out I was gay. I’m pretty sure they would be quite hesitant to play with me, even in a limited capacity – it comes down to outdated stereotypes of gay men being full of HIV, and they can pass it on by touch.
“I’m not the most social person, I’m quite introverted and I like a small group of people, but I think Taexali have done a really good job.
“We were walking steps through January for charity, and I was quite embarrassed that I had a low step-count for a few days, thinking I’d let them down, and I told them I’d been having a bit of a slump because of lockdown.
“Everyone was really understanding, they all related to it. I was expecting them to be like ‘oh, no worries’, but they were relating to me and I’d never really had that before. They were quite accepting of it, and in general they’re quite accepting of everything. I guess that’s the big takeaway, it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s very inclusive – it’s like a community.
“Some of them were taking the steps very seriously, but I told myself after I got out of that slump that I was doing a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, and I should be doing that. To be fair, what else do I have to do?
“I got a lot of encouragement from the team, and after I got out of the slump and I was doing 17,000 steps a day I got a lot of encouragement. I was quite proud of myself for posting it, and actually doing something about it, but I was quite happy when that was recognised because they had remembered that I went through that slump.
“I’ve been going to the social zoom calls they’ve done too, I’ve been making an effort to go on those because if I didn’t I’d just sit on the couch and watch Netflix.
“I’ve been telling myself I need to make the most of it, because there are people who are in similar situations, we’re all locked indoors, it’s cold outside, and I would say it’s helped me a wee bit.”